|China's imprudence is India's opportunity
6 July 2012
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College and senior fellow at the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former US Navy surface warfare officer, he served as military professor at the Naval War College, College of Distance Education, and as director of a steam engineering course at the Surface Warfare Officers School Command. On sea duty, he served as an engineering and gunnery officer on board the battleship Wisconsin. He is a combat veteran of the first Gulf War.
Jim’s most recent book is Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to U.S. Maritime Strategy (with Toshi Yoshihara), an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a US Naval Institute Notable Naval Book for 2010. It has been translated into German and Korean and is under contract to be translated and published by the China Social Sciences Press, an arm of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Forthcoming is Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age: Power, Ambition, and the Ultimate Weapon (Georgetown University Press). Under contract is Asiatic Fleets, Then and Now. He is the author or co-author of 20 book chapters and over 100 journal articles, as well as over 300 opinion columns for various prestigious publications. He is a defense analyst and weekly columnist for The Diplomat. Jim spoke to Observer Research Foundation’s South China Sea Monitor. He was interviewed by Iskander Rehman, Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC, and former Visiting Fellow at the ORF.
Q.1. In a recent article for Strategic Analysis, you discuss the considerable logistical hurdles India faces as an "exterior line" power in the South China Sea. You note that "it may take an almost Copernican revolution" in India’s strategic thinking in order for it to successfully negotiate the challenges inherent to such operations. What strategic disadvantages does China face in the South China Sea? Could India exploit these "chinks" in times of conflict, and if so, how?
James Holmes (JH): China is making a real mess for itself in the South China Sea. As my friend Toshi Yoshihara and I pointed out last year, Beijing has taken on an enormous number of military commitments all around the Asian periphery, and it has done so before the People’s Liberation Army force structure matures enough in size and capability to supply forces to each of those commitments. We used Carl von Clausewitz’s simple formula for when to open "secondary" theaters or operations as a device to analyze China’s capacity to uphold a "core interest" in the South China Sea. We found that Chinese leaders have failed to prioritize among commitments or allocate forces wisely. A mismatch among policy, strategy, and forces has opened.
At the same time, Chinese leaders have taken actions guaranteed to antagonize their neighbours, and they seem unable to fathom that this will generate long-lasting suspicions and resentments in places like Southeast Asia. For a country that forever-and understandably-laments its "century of humiliation," China seems to have a hard time empathizing with weak states that confront strong ones today. They don’t seems to comprehend this role reversal. Whatever the case, China’s imprudence could be India’s opportunity. India could, and I believe will, find welcoming audiences in Southeast Asia, just as the United States has in the past couple of years. It should continue pursuing its Look East policy confidently, and refuse to look cowed, defensive, or overly worried when things like the "escorting" incident from earlier this month take place. An Indian presence in the region cannot be ignored, and that’s how New Delhi should portray it.
Q.2. You have questioned the veracity of certain elements of the alleged encounter in-between the INS Arivat, an Indian amphibious vessel, and a Chinese Navy unit, first reported in the Financial Times in July 2011. Nevertheless, you add, such reports only underscore the growing unease lurking under the surface of Sino-Indian maritime relations. What are your thoughts on both rising powers’ future naval interactions in the South China Sea and beyond? How can both parties work towards diluting future tensions?
JH: I questioned the Airavat story because there was no evidence that it was true. Anyone with a bridge-to-bridge radio-and that covers just about anyone plying the briny deep-can dial up Channel 16 and claim to be the Chinese Navy.
As far as defusing future tensions, I guess we all have a choice. If India or other Southeast Asian powers defer to China’s claims to "indisputable sovereignty" over most of the South China Sea, then tensions will abate-but at the price of compromising fundamental principles underlying freedom of the seas. Both Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal lie well within the Philippine exclusive economic zone, despite news reports that spin this as Manila’s "saying" those features lie within the EEZ. Look at the map. They do lie within the Philippine EEZ. I frankly am not sure whether Washington can have it both ways, although I sympathize with administration officials. Can we really refuse to take sides on clearly excessive maritime claims without gutting the law of the sea? I can think of some really bad nonviolent settlements to these controversies.
Or, China can give up its claim to indisputable sovereignty. But having depicted the dispute as a matter of sovereignty, Beijing has probably painted itself into a corner with the populace. If China backs down now, then by its own terms it will have surrendered a core interest and sovereign territory. Chinese leaders overtly back down at their peril.
The other alternative is what I’ve called "small-stick diplomacy," whereby Beijing relies on unarmed surveillance and law-enforcement ships to solidify its claims. By treating Scarborough Shoal as a matter of routine law enforcement within sovereign Chinese waters, China creates facts on the ground. It need not send the fleet, simply because weak sea powers like the Philippines know the fleet exists, is overpoweringly strong, and will be sent if they defy China’s will. This is an excruciatingly tough problem for Manila, Washington, or for that matter New Delhi. Beijing has proved very adept at staying below the threshold that would provoke more vigorous intervention in these controversies. What would the US Navy do-station a guided-missile destroyer at Scarborough Shoal on picket duty?
Q.3. You draw attention to the salience of maritime soft power, suggesting that New Delhi, through its peacetime forays into the Southeast Asian maritime and littoral expanse may be able to shape regional perceptions to its advantage. In your mind, how can the Indian Navy best leverage its soft power potential in Asia?
JH: India can tap its soft-power potential by being who it is-a big country with a history of not trampling its neighbours’ rights and prerogatives. Soft power is a power of attraction that stems from an admirable culture, traditions, institutions, what have you. India and the United States are in much the same boat in Southeast Asia in that respect. We can speak softly and deploy forces without affronting states in the region (except of course for China). Few fear us, no matter how strong we are. Now, where India has fallen short to date is in fielding a Big Stick, to use Teddy Roosevelt’s famous metaphor. Hard power underlies soft-power diplomacy. Much depends on how India’s naval buildup unfolds. Displaying the ability to deploy big, impressive task forces outside the Indian Ocean will enhance Indian soft power immensely, letting New Delhi speak softly while carrying a Big Stick.
Q. 4. Both India and China have been labouring to craft a strong maritime narrative in order to provide the ideational underpinnings to their naval expansion. In the past, you have described India’s search for "usable" maritime past as being somewhat impressionistic and lacking in specifics. China’s historical maritime narrative, on the other hand, has been greatly bolstered by the state-sanctioned lionization of the naval exploits of figures such as the Ming Dynasty Admiral Zheng He. What can be done in order to better acquaint India’s political leadership and chattering classes with the more sea-drenched chapters of their nation’s past? And how could the savvy instrumentalization of certain aspects of the subcontinent’s maritime legacy help supplement New Delhi’s soft power initiatives in regions such as Southeast Asia?
JH: That’s an excellent question to which I have no excellent answer. Unfortunately for India, its narrative of maritime greatness would be more like the Serbian national legend-a legend of glorious defeat at Ottoman hands-than like China’s Zheng He narrative. Indian mariners did once command South Asian waters, but that was very long ago, and there’s no historical figure of Zheng He’s allure attached to that seafaring age. Indian sailors did stage a series of rousing tactical victories in the decades after Vasco da Gama’s arrival, but they were never able to command the Indian Ocean the way the Ming fleet intermittently did. Theirs was a losing cause. So, alas, India’s seagoing past is not a focus for national pride and dignity to the degree that the Ming treasure voyages are for China. The onus is on Indian leaders today to start creating a usable past for future generations.
On the other hand, I have never been too sure how much buy-in Beijing got from its Zheng He diplomacy. A lot of Asians politely smiled and nodded, but did that translate into desired outcomes for China? And in any event, Beijing has largely demolished the central tenet of its Zheng He narrative over the past three years-namely that China is an intrinsically benevolent sea power. Soft power can be more like perfume, or more like pheromones. But if you have body odor-bad pheromones--people will eventually smell it, no matter how much perfume you dab on to cover it up. India smells rather sweet by default. Never underestimate the value of a self-defeating competitor.
Q.5. China’s truculent behavior within its immediate maritime environs has resulted in the alienation of its smaller neighbors, and has strengthened their desire for an external balancing presence. You observe that other maritime nations such as Japan and the United States already play such a role, and urge India to augment its influence "by consulting with fellow exterior-line powers". What ultimate structure or compact do you see emerging from such interactions? Can India engage in such actions without adding succor to China’s reflexive sense of embattlement?
JH: I think you characterize China’s response to outside activities in its environs perfectly, as a "reflexive sense of embattlement." I’m not sure there’s much we can do to ease this reflex aside from evacuating the region and giving Beijing its way. That’s a non-starter. So we should expect to keep hearing protests about encirclement, containment, etc. Still, we don’t have to get up in China’s face. If maritime security is the reason for our being in the South China Sea, then let’s tailor forces to that mission. That means light forces.
I have argued (here, and here, for example) that the United States has a small-stick option of its own in the South China Sea, embodied in its forward deployment of Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore. It can keep light forces in Southeast Asia with heavy forces (preferably stationed nearby, in Australia) as a backstop. I could see India and Japan sending light squadrons of their own to the region while holding their main fleets in reserve. This would probably be a rather loose arrangement, not a "structure" or "compact." India’s reluctance to work too closely with others would probably apply to Southeast Asia as well as the Gulf of Aden. While there, external ships should go about their business under the international system as it currently stands-forging partnerships with coastal states, battling pirates, interdicting proliferation, whatever. If China wants to escalate against routine maritime-security operations, let it pick up the Big Stick first-and look like a regional bully. Which loops back around to our discussion of soft power and self-defeating Chinese behavior.
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